Great book, but that goes almost without saying when it comes to Mr. Rushdie (at least for me 😀 )
But first, a little bit of wisdom I want to impart: a 400-page book really shouldn’t be read in a week – not when it’s this interesting. I mean, seriously, how busy could I have been? :-O It came as a shock to me when I realised it had been a week since I had started it. [This is a sentence that reminds me of all the interminable rows of exercices with tenses that I was supposed to do in highschool. But reading it, it’s probably obvious I avoided all that work 😀 ]
But….back to the book. It’s Mr. Rushdie’s third, and the second to enjoy critical acclaim (his debut novel, “Grimus” was published in 1975, with very little success), a Booker nomination (J.M. Coetzee won that year with “The life and times of Michael K”) and Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger. The universe in which the characters lead their life is Pakistan, not the Pakistan we all know, but a “Peccavistan” and an imaginary city – Q. Somehow, “Shame” follows where “Midnight’s children” left off; after India’s separation from the British Empire, we now see the destiny of Pakistan, who also separated that same year and, though only mentioned briefly, the birth of another nation (and also by division) Bangladesh. Typical for Mr. Rushdie, elements of the historical truth are mixed with fiction and legend to create a whole new, alternate universe (and this is one of the reasons why I love him so much 😉 ). The destinies of two main characters (Iskander Harappa and gen. Raza Hyder) and loosely modeled after the real-life Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (father of Benazir Bhutto) and gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. If I knew more about the history of Pakistan – there would be a lot more things to be said, unfortunately, I’m trying to catch up as I go along, the same as I did when reading Midnight’s children.
Shame, or „sharam” in Arabic (a word that contains and embraces the various sides of shame: embarrassment, dishonor, condemnation, frustration, guilt, etc) is physically embodied by Sufiya Zinobia, Raza Hyder’s mentally challenged daughter – and it is the shame of all those around her, the shame unlived by them, that turns her into a beast, thus explaining the development of violence from shame and the ravaging strength it gets when feeding on such a fertile soil. When you look upon it, Sufyia, “the miracle that failed” is Pakistan, an artificial nation who fails its own creators and who has no other choice but to resort to violence. She is the shameful, while her husband Omar Khayyam – the shameless. The story of how he becomes such a character, of the myth and strangeness surrounding his birth and culminating with his departure from his parents’ house with only one word of advice (something along the lines of „Don’t ever be ashamed”) occupies the first chapters, only to turn him into a secondary, yet recurrent character throughout the entire novel, leaving the centerstage to the intrigues, risings and inevitable downfalls in both politics and marriage of Iskander and Raza.
Rushdie gets almost personal, dedicating entire fragments to his own experience as a two-time immigrant, displaced once by the will of his family from India to Pakistan and the second time by his own will from Pakistan to Great Britain. This is the kind of intrusion that, along with judgments made at the expense of his characters and with quotes from other novels, only adds to the book’s charm and particularity. And (almost forgot about this one) something a bit ironic: Mr. Rushdie says, at one point – “It’s fiction, how can someone judge or condemn you for writing fiction” (damn, there really are times when I wish I did write down quotes) – and that is only 6 years before the all-too-famous fatwa 😀
In the end, this is a somewhat ignored book, coming right inbetween “Midnight’s children” (which is considered Mr. Rushdie’s best work) and “The Satanic Verses” (definitely his most widely known and controversial work) – and unjustly so, because, even if less intricate and complex than the other two, it’s not less interesting or less enjoyable. Come to think of it, I’d recommend it to a first-time Rushdie reader: it’s not so big as to make it scary, yet it’s a peek into his unique style and typical universe.
Plus, Saturday I went into Anthony Frost to buy a present, and I saw IT – big, yellow with hard covers and a pretty high price, right in the middle of the store – and I am way too broke this month. Way way too broke…. but on April 30, I will have “The Enchantress of Florence”. On my bookshelf 😀